- Dana O'Neil, ESPN Senior Writer
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The tap dance was at least entertaining -- the inevitable questions followed by the inevitable shoulder shrugs and clichéd quotes about enjoying college and not worrying about the future.
The quintet headlined what can be described as perhaps the most precocious class of rookies college basketball has ever seen. That their arrivals segued with the second year of the NBA age agreement only made the glare of the spotlight stronger, as if fans were viewing touring fine art they knew would be around only for a limited engagement.
But basketball is nothing if not cyclical, and the NBA's babysitting service (also known as NCAA Division I basketball) doesn't seem to have nearly so many customers for this coming season.
"Last year's freshman class was not normal," said Memphis coach John Calipari, who coached one of the rarities, potential No. 1 pick Rose. "They were unusually skilled physically and prepared emotionally. Most 17- and 18-year-olds are not like that."
Most people who study these sorts of things -- and if ever there were a hotbed for basketball-loving entrepreneurs, the recruiting service world is it -- agree that among the players set to enroll this fall, there are more shades of gray than absolutes.
There is some consensus. Memphis-bound Tyreke Evans and Arizona-bound Brandon Jennings are names that cross most people's lips when they are asked to name obvious one-and-dones from the class of 2008. Certainly, there is little reason to think the two will stick around. When he announced his college choice, Evans intimated he will bolt after a season. And as much as Jennings' talent will factor in the decision, the unsettled mess that currently is Arizona basketball might make the choppy waters of the NBA seem like a calm bay.
But outside those two players, there are more questions than answers. One scout liked Samardo Samuels, who is headed to Louisville; another didn't, opting instead for Ohio State's B.J. Mullens and USC's Demar DeRozan. Recruiting analysts lean toward Evans, Jennings and maybe UCLA's Jrue Holiday.
"I don't think there's a lock," said Chris Rivers, Reebok's director of grassroots basketball. "There were at least three or four guys this past year I would have bet were coming out after a year. This year, there's no betting."
The likeliest culprit is really nothing more than the ebb and flow of the game, but there are some mitigating factors that could affect the talent pool.
• Too much too soon. The recruiting cottage industry, looking to be the first to introduce the next great thing, has reached its tentacles as far back as middle school, regularly ranking the nation's top sixth-graders. Forget puberty and growth spurts, or, more importantly, kids whose height maxes out when they are 12 -- the need to tap college prospects early has reached dizzying degrees of silliness.
Even people who make a living ranking kids who haven't sprouted facial hair wonder whether they are doing more harm than good. Labeled someone to watch before their teen years, offering verbal commitments before middle-school graduation -- where's the incentive to work harder and improve?
"It's this creature that's created," one NBA scout said. "'I'm a McDonald's All-American, so I'm one and done or two and out.' The peer pressure is so great."
The college game long has been littered with can't-miss players who fail to deliver. One recruiting analyst pointed to a player who had been tabbed among the best in his class nationally but wasn't even the best player on the court at a recent all-star game. Out of shape and overweight, he was living off his reputation rather than improving his game.
Those reality blinders, Calipari believes, are the worst byproduct of labeling players too early.
"There's a reason the NFL makes you wait [three] years to play; otherwise, you get your neck broken," he said. "It's no different in the NBA. You have to be physically ready, and that takes work. If you're ready, then you're chasing greatness. If you're immature, you're chasing money, and that's too fast and slippery to last."
• Lost in the shadows. Maybe Michelle Williams will blossom into a superstar now that Destiny's Child is no longer and she is releasing her first R&B album this summer. Maybe it should have happened sooner, but you try sharing a stage with Beyoncé.
Which takes us to the class of 2008, a crew forced to spend its AAU seasons understudying Beasley, Rose, Mayo & Company. There's not a whole lot of ball-sharing on the AAU circuit, where reputations are made and molded. And if you don't have the ball, you can't make much of an impression.
That's why Calipari at least isn't ready to write off this class. He has coached three one-and-dones (Shawne Williams, Dajuan Wagner and Rose) and knows that just as surely as guys can play their way out of the NBA draft, they can play their way in. And a certain month in early spring can change the draft landscape almost overnight.
"What if we had lost to Mississippi State [in the second round of the NCAA tournament]?" Calipari said. "Is Derrick Rose still a [potential] No.1 pick? Is Chris Douglas-Roberts coming out, or is he coming back for his senior year? There are some things you can't predict. You get two freshmen go to the title game, they're coming out. Right now, we may say there's no more than two or three guys [leaving in 2009], but that number can jump to eight pretty quick."
When we fast forward to a year from now, there are likely to be more names than less. Kevin Durant and Greg Oden, Beasley and Rose are rare talents and should be viewed accordingly, but money and fame have a way of clouding even the sanest person's vision. And in a system fraught with opportunism, where teenagers make life-altering decisions, Mr. Magoo has a better chance of making a clear-eyed choice.
It would be nice to think people will have the good sense to see how the players about to be drafted do after just one prep season, whether the NBA game chews all but the exceptional ones up and spits them out.
It would be nice.
It also would be painfully naive. High school kids wear Teflon jackets on top of bulletproof skin. If there is a bad trend, they believe they will buck it.
"I am concerned," Oregon coach Ernie Kent said. "There's a whole lot of kids who think, 'I can do it after a year.' Unfortunately, that's the mentality, yet so few are really able to do it. We know those kids are few and far between."
Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at email@example.com.
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